MILLBURN, NJ – Fiscal responsibility, transparency, and the relationship between the board of education and the community were among the hot topics at Thursday night’s Millburn Board of Education candidates’ debate.

The debate, sponsored by the Short Hills Association, was done in front of a packed room at the Education Center and included newcomers Elliot Cahn, Dr. Rupali Wadhwa and Raymond Wong, and incumbent board member Dr. Eric Siegel. Short Hills Association President Eleanor Wallen gave the welcoming comments, and Second Vice President Arp Trivedi served as moderator.

In their opening remarks, each candidate gave an overview of why they’re running and what they see as the most important issues facing the Millburn school district.

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Wadhwa, who moved with her family to Short Hills six years ago, has two children, a three-year-old and a second-grader who attends Deerfield School. She compared her campaign for the school board to her training for the New York Marathon.

“You have to have a plan, and you have to plan in small increments until you get to your goal,” she said. As an orthodontist with practices in Morristown and South Orange, as well as experience in a higher education setting, Wadhwa said she believes in fiscal responsibility.

Siegel agreed that “we live in challenging economic times.”

“We need leadership that understands that,” he said. “I have always been able to find the middle ground. I was unanimously elected as vice president of the board. I am fully vested in Millburn.” He is a dermatologist with a practice in Millburn, and has children who attend Hartshorn Elementary, the middle school and the high school.

Cahn, who has been an educator for 21 years, teaches fifth grade at South Mountain School in South Orange. He was manager of the Millburn pool for 10 years and has two children who attend South Mountain School in Millburn.  “I believe the board of education is a natural fit for me. I can bring fresh ideas and innovative programs to the district. Since the board of education decided to pass along the cost of busing to the parents, the budget surplus continues to grow. The busing fee is in addition to the high property taxes we already pay.” He questioned what the board has done with the surplus, and why they elected to spend it on new sidewalks, instead of new curricula.

Wong said he is running for three reasons. “I have a proven track record of service to the nation, I have diverse experience, and I’m a resident of Millburn.” He explained that he is the son of immigrants who came to America with very little money but dreams of a better life. A product of the New Jersey public school system, he attended West Point and went on to serve as an officer in the United States Army. He was a Fortune 500 executive so he knows “how to do more with less.” He’s also an adjunct professor at NJIT. He said he and his wife chose Millburn because of its excellent school system.

The first section of the debate included pre-set questions submitted to the candidates earlier by the Short Hills Association.

The first question was what changes each candidate would propose to improve the relationship between the board of education and the public.

Siegel said all the board can really do is be honest with the public.

“This is what I’ve done,” he said. “I’m clear in my statements and in what I stand up for. Some on the board have not always been so clear. Yes, we can always do better at communicating with the public. We are required by law to meet six times a year, but we meet over 20 times. Things are not as bad on the board as some would say, but we can get information back to the public faster. We can improve our website.”

Siegel said he doesn’t believe the interplay between the board and the public is a problem.

Cahn said he doesn’t think the board listens to the public, and he would make sure they do.

“I would welcome public participation,” he said. “Bring back the 100 year-old right to vote on the school budget. Now we can’t do it for three more years, and I will seek to overturn this undemocratic policy.” He added that the board needs to be more transparent, and that meeting minutes are often brief and don’t include enough information. He also suggested the elimination of some committees and have that work done by the full board, during open meetings, and said there needs to be time during the public comment session for residents to talk about any issue.

Wong said he has a three-step plan: communication, action and supporting each other.

“In the Army, we were taught that a leader always has to listen,” Wong said. “I’ve gone to people’s homes, I’ve gone to board meetings, I’ve gone to parent organization meetings. I believe transparence can be better and updates can be provided in a better fashion.”

Wong said he is very open and gave out his email address, raymondwongforboe@gmail.com, encouraging residents to contact him directly with questions and concerns.

“I believe we need to try new things, and set a measure of success,” he said, noting that during the last board meeting, members spent 45 minutes talking about changing the meeting time, which he said was a waste of time.

“We need to support each other,” Wong said. “We’re all neighbors, we all pay taxes. Most of the time we’ll agree, sometimes we’ll disagree. But once we make a decision, we have to move forward as a community.”

Wadhwa said she would bring “dramatic changes” to the board.

“I would bring the public fully into the priority-setting process of the schools,” she said, explaining that she would do that by restoring the question-and-answer format of the public comment session, move board meetings back to the various schools as they used to be, and engage as a mature adult with fellow members of the board, whom she said should serve as role models for decency and openness.

The second question asked what some potential solutions are to the fact that Millburn schools dropped in NJ Monthly’s ratings this year from first place to eighth place.

Cahn said it’s his understanding that while test scores were strong, class size increases have impacted the district’s rankings.

“Our drop has given prospective residents a reason not to look at Millburn,” he said, adding that many will probably consider New Providence, which ranked at the top this year, a better choice.

“I am also concerned about where we rank regionally and nationally,” Cahn said. “Our graduates are competing with graduates across the country. If that’s true now, what’s it going to be like in 10 years? We must be constantly aware of the education landscape and the future workforce. The board has to be sure the administration supports their goals. Enrollment is an issue. It seems as though we do not have forward plan as we are at capacity.”

Wong pointed out that property values are dependent on where the township’s education system ranks, and that Millburn needs to improve by focusing on the percentage of teachers who have higher degrees, class sizes, and opening Advanced Placement (AP) classes to more students to increase the district’s ranking.

Wadhwa said she’s concerned “because my community is, and if I am to represent them, I need to learn more about them. As a scientist, I’m trained to look deeper. Rankings are skin deep. They are not a good measurement of how we are doing. We need to look at how student achievements are, across the board. Looking at just the NJ Monthly ranking does not give us the bigger picture.” She gave an overview of the test scores at other schools in the district, and pointed out that the test scores that are ranked and talked about are only at the high school.

“We need to look at the elementary and middle school as well,” she said. “We need a dashboard look and look for indicators to help direct our curriculum.”

Siegel said the district should always be concerned about the performance of its schools.

“But what’s being lost in this discussion are the rest of the facts,” he said. “Our scores are up. We improved in HISPA, math and language. Average students ranked #2 in math and science. Our AP test scores are above three, we are at the highest. The school that came in at number one was 100 less on the average AP score than we have. We are measuring across the board. We are measuring everything. To say that’s not happening and we’re not looking is wrong. We’ve known about the bubble going into the high school for years. We’ve made adjustments. If you’ve been coming to board meetings for a long time, you know that. Before really throwing daggers at the board, please get the facts straight.”

The third question was what each candidate hopes to realize if they’re elected.

Wong said his goals are simple.

“We should have fiscally prudent budget, we should protect our assets, and we should improve the relationship between the board and public,” he said. “Since the (budget) vote was taken away, I need to jump in and help out.”

He said he attends most board meetings and hears what the parents’ concerns are.

“I hear about hot rooms and leaking roofs,” he said. “We have a field house we’re not proud of. How are we going to take care of these and protect our assets?”

He added that the contention between the board and the public is a problem.

“I’ve gone to these meetings,” Wong said. “Sometimes they’re quite contentious. I once heard (Superintendent James) Dr. Crisfield say we’re not going to have a repeat of a WWF match. That really surprised me, especially in Millburn.”

Wadhwa said the board of education needs to be aware of the changing economy.

“We need career awareness, problem solving, and creative thinking,” she said. “It requires us to be aware of changing trends. What surprises me is there are so many innovative ideas out there that the board of education hasn’t brought up. There are numerous grants, even corporate grants that can be used to bring in new and innovative programs.”

Siegel said he goal is to continue his course of the pursuit of the highest academic achievement, which has to be tempered with fiscal responsibility.

“My goal is to increase technology and allow us to have more differentiated learning in the classroom,” he said. “We want to get more technology into the high school by way of electronic textbooks, so students aren’t carrying around 50-pound backpacks.”

However, Siegel said, the district first had to improve the infrastructure at the schools, including more broadband access and increased wi-fi.

“Lastly, I agree about going after grants,” he said “Lise Chapman had the idea awhile back but they don’t go to districts like ours as a rule because we are not economically disadvantaged.”

Cahn said his priorities include improving the camaraderie among the board members so they can have “productive, fruitful discussions.” He said the budget must align with the district’s long-term goals, which must be realistic. He also said the board members must listen to the community and “insist on keeping dialogue polite, productive and ongoing.”

“We need to focus on student achievement and create continuous cycles of improvement,” he added.

The next section of the debate involved questions from the audience.

Resident Sanjay Gupta said he has seen a demographic shift in the school population and has noticed more Asians moving to town, but he doesn’t see diversity in the committees at the different schools. He asked the candidates if they would attempt to bring more diversity to the district’s leadership.

Siegel said he appreciates the demographic shift but that the board has no role in choosing members of the various schools’ PTOs. He pointed out the diversity at the candidates’ table.

Cahn said he welcomes diversity, “as I think we all do.”

Wong said his father taught him that America is a “tapestry of nations.” He said more people of varying ethnic backgrounds need to get involved at the grass roots level by stepping up and getting involved.

“That’s what diversity is - having more voices in the conversation,” he said.

Current Board President Michael Birnberg asked if any of the candidates care about the district’s students, about the stress they are under and the fact that many of them are drinking.

Wong agreed that there is a lot of pressure on students to perform.

“But we’re not really different from other towns in the area,” he said. “To answer your question, am I concerned about our students? Yes, but it’s also up to parents, teachers, and the administration to see the signs of alcohol use and manage the situation before it gets out of control.”

Siegel said the issue of student stress is one the board has been discussing.

“It comes down to the fact that especially at the high school, people want their kids in AP classes, but they want less homework,” he said. “They don’t come together.”

He added that students are under stress, and the district needs to make sure they’re not putting undue pressure on them. He pointed out the previous discussion about the NJ Monthly rankings.

“We’re not number one, and the sky is falling,” Siegel said.

Cahn said he does care, and that he’s seen many programs for kids on how to handle stress. He said the community has to work together to make sure students do not get overly stressed.

“I know second graders who are being tutored now in math,” he said. “It’s hard to believe.”

Wadhwa said she also is concerned about the stress level, particularly at the high school. However, she said, she commends the school district for exposing its children to a competitive environment to better prepare them for the working world.

“You do need it, but for it to lead to drinking is not good,” she said, adding that the problem needs to be handled by the administration as well as parents.

“It also concerns me about kids in the middle set, and lower level,” Wadhwa said. “Those kids also have to be paid attention to so we can bring them up and be part of this competitive environment.”

Resident Josh Scharf asked what the plan is for the expensive technology spend the district has embarked on. He said he has asked before what the objectives are and there’s usually no response. Siegel replied that there has been a response, just not the one Scharf wanted.

“There is a plan,” he said. “Most of the expenditures we spent have been for reinvesting in the infrastructure so the technology can work.” He added that the prior administration had not been investing in technology so the district had to first catch up.

Wong said the district has to make sure the technology supports the schools’ needs. “Technology is only a tool,” he said. “We have to understand where we’re going to go, and identify the needs and wants we want technology to achieve.”

Cahn said the district also should invest in training teachers on how to use new technology.

“I know teachers who have smartboards they use for typing because they don’t know how else to use them,” he said. “They have iPads that just sit in their drawers.”

Wadhwa said the district should figure out its plan, do its due diligence and put down the projected costs.

“Bringing technology into the schools is a great idea,” she said. “I have implemented technology in my offices, and the same rules apply.”

Debbie Fox, a former board member who lost in the last election, said three of the candidates – Wadhwa, Cahn and Wong – seem to be running as a group, since their names appear on the same signs and all attend candidate gatherings together.

“Do you each have your own views that you’ll fight for and not become part of a voting block? What one issue will you single handedly fight for?” Fox asked.

Cahn said he’s not running as a block.

“The three of us may share the same issues, but because we all want board transparency doesn’t mean we each don’t want it.”

Wadhwa said the three new candidates are “young blood with fresh, new ideas.” She said the fact that they are running in the same election and go to some of the same functions is just coincidence.

Wong said for him, the single issue is going to stand for is making sure the board makes fiscally responsible decisions.

“At the last meeting, there was a discussion of $50,000 for renovations to the fieldhouse that hadn’t been put out for bid,” he said. “Those kinds of projects always get bid out to get best price. Just common sense budget management. We can’t spend frivolously anymore. There’s a new paradigm.”

Sigel said that “as the person with signs standing alone,” he has noticed that the talking points of the other three candidates come directly from “We Love Millburn,” a local watchdog group that frequents board meetings and often speaks up during the public comment session.

“The sidewalk comment comes directly from Josh (Scharf),” Siegel said. “You have to stand on your own and be an individual. If you’re not an individual, then you’re beholden to someone else.”

 

Resident Jeff Diecidue said he has going to board of education meetings for more than 10 years and has watched boards go from insular to open and back to insular, which he said the current board has become. He asked how each candidate would operate as a group and as a board, and how they would address insularity.

Wadhwa said she had attended the meetings as a member of the public and has noticed that when she has asked questions, they have not been answered and she was told the public comment session was only for comments, not questions.

“I definitely agree it’s hard group to work with,” she said. “I’ve heard that from public numerous times but I didn’t believe it until I came here.”

Siegel said that’s her perception, not reality.

“We get along great,” he said. “The board is congenial. We give answers when they’re due. Sometimes we can’t give answers. The public comment section is for comments, not question. We try to get answers back to people when we can, when we have them available. We don’t want to give wrong answers either.”

Siegel added that the board never took away public comment, but decided to make that portion of the meeting just for comments after some residents began “filibustering” at the beginning of the meeting, forcing the board to wait to start its regular work until nearly midnight.

“That’s why we made changes,” he said. “We keep tinkering with it. We did listen to public and we did hear you. We’re trying to adjust.”

Cahn said he disagrees with Siegel’s comment that the board’s interpersonal problems are just Wadhwa’s perception.

“I’ve talked to dozens of people and they all say they’re embarrassed about the incivility among board members,” he said. “I don’t see a congenial group, I don’t see working together.”

Wong said the meetings must be open and board members must listen to the public, and the board members need to support each other.

“We can do more to reach out to the public and talk more to them and listen to them,” Wong said. “Does it have to be a formal time? I understand the board needs to get work done, that’s why the board exists. But we have to find a way to work better with community. We are Millburn and Short Hills. We’re a community.”

The next section of the meeting allowed each candidate, if they chose, to submit a question directed to another candidate.

Wong asked Cahn what his view is on whether Millburn teachers should be allowed to tutor Millburn students. Other districts have prohibited the practice.

Cahn responded that he does believe such a situation is a conflict of interest and that tutors definitely should not tutor students in their own class, or even in their own grade.

Siegel asked Cahn if he would be in favor of implementing the de-leveling plan recently put into place in Maplewood-South Orange Schools. De-leveling combines advanced students with mid-level students for certain subjects such as language arts. Cahn said that while the system works in Maplewood-South Orange, he doesn’t think Millburn students would benefit from such a system.

Cahn asked Siegel how, now that the public is not allowed to vote on the school budget and can’t prioritize how their tax dollars should be used, taxpayers can be certain the school budget reflects the taxpayers’ goals.

Siegel responded that the public never did vote on where the money went, they only voted on the total amount of the budget.

“They voted on a number,” he said. “That’s it.”

Earlier this year, 90 percent of New Jersey’s school districts voted to move their elections to November, now allowed under state law, which eliminates the public vote on the school district budget as long as it’s under the state-mandated two percent tax cap.

“Moving the election to November wasn’t taking away your right,” Siegel said. “The right still exists if we go above the cap of two percent. This is a legacy of the board I’m comfortable living with. My taxes tripled since I’ve lived here. We can’t go on living with double-digit tax increases. We can’t let runaway boards and adminstrations take our tax dollars and waste them anymore. While I’ve been on board, we’ve had tax increases that have always been under the cap. Does any ever vote a budget down because it’s too low? No. So the vote wasn’t taken away. Also we save about $30,000 by making this move, and we’ll get a better cross section of the community out to vote. We’re going to have participation and numbers we’ve never seen before voting in this election.”